What would you do?
I had recently emigrated to Australia from South Africa. Having spent years in corporations in Johannesburg, within the pharmaceutical and dairy and food industries. Some of my experience was also at a wholesaler/ retailer business.
Working in manufacturing companies that sell brands differs from being on the other side of the desk, as a wholesaler or retailer.
My experience in the large wholesaler / retailer really toughened me up. It was a tough culture, a lot of swearing and little respect shown to colleagues.
We used to attend these meetings where the buyers who deal with the branded companies were told just how useless they are, in language that is best left in those boardroom meetings. Sometimes meetings got tense, and the merchandise manager would throw staplers and other office stationary at buyers. He would lock buyers in offices until they got the ‘right price’ from the brand suppliers. Selling large volumes of an item with the wrong price would cost the company a lot of money, so in some respects I could understand the passion. I just could not understand the method, but the method was effective in achieving desired outcomes, at the expense of the emotional state of the buyer.
It was tough, and they had a saying at that company, you either stayed there two weeks, two years, or twenty years. For my sins I stayed there 2 years, but looking back it was a good learning curve.
People were polite to a point, but for negotiations, the lifeblood of this trading corporation, that’s when the gloves came off and they would call a spade a shovel, to people’s faces. You become hardened. Some of the thickest skinned individuals I had ever come across worked in this corporation, hardened by years of a tough culture.
With that as background, I was happy to start at my new job in a pharmaceutical company in Australia and in my first week in a new job; we had a meeting with our advertising agency.
During the meeting, after discussing the new advertising campaign on one of our brands, it was time to get to the costs.
The account manager, who was a senior manager within the advertising agency handed over the quote, typed up on agency branded paper, pristine and well laid out.
Except I had a problem, my boss was there, and the agency was dealing with me for price negotiations. Having the retailer background, I was straight into attack mode.
Australia is an expensive country when compared to South Africa, so I still had in my mind, the costs we paid to agencies in South Africa and when handed the quote I was doing the conversions based on exchange rates in my head, as I looked down the quote.
This voice inside me was saying, ‘this is a complete rip off. An agency in South Africa wouldn’t even be this bold to present these types of ludicrous costs to me.’ This woman is taking us for a ride, she is like a smiling assassin all very prim and proper on the outside but stealing money from our marketing budgets on the inside.
I thought about her going back to the agency and getting high fives from her colleagues and all of them laughing that our company and the marketing manager were that stupid to accept the quote.
I carried on looking at the costs, and I couldn’t get the image of her and her colleagues laughing at us out of my mind.
My response outwardly was this “Julieanne what the hell is this?” and I slid the quote back across the desk to her with gusto.
“It’s, um, it’s a quote.”
“It’s a bloody rip off, that’s what it is, do you really think you can pull a fast one, why don’t you go back to your agency and sharpen your pencil, and come back with something realistic, this is ridiculous.”
She went quiet and then started crying.
It was then that my boss had to step in, I was at a loss for words, nowhere in the tough city of Johannesburg had I ever encountered such a reaction.
My boss at the time then said, “I don’t think he means it like that Julieanne, what he meant to say was; would you mind just re -assessing your costs on some items that you presented and come back to us to see if you can do better?”
That was a lot nicer and more civilized way to say what I wanted to say, and the tears dried up. I felt bad and realised that I needed to change my attitude; I was told occasionally in the first few years of being in Australia that I was a little too direct and have since adjusted my attitude and mannerisms.
I think I had a culture blind spot and this can happen when you emigrate. Even though lifestyles are similar, there are nuances of cultures that change. Johannesburg is a violent city and people live on their nerves so tempers are a lot more frayed. People seem a lot more impatient, and this translates in the way they relate to each other too.
Now that I am older and wiser, when I look back at my behaviour it is quite cringeworthy, but I do still quite enjoy the process of negotiating I just do it with a lot more of a cool head nowadays.